IIn a rehearsal room with dark walls, three actors line up. “Do you agree with the word handicap? begins Simon Laherty. A dedicated fan of Britney Spears, he wears a black hoodie emblazoned with the singer and her “Oops…” slogan.
“I don’t think that describes me,” Sarah Mainwaring retorts in a firm voice, each syllable conveying a deep feeling.
The third actor, Scott Price, strokes his Ned Kelly beard, then sticks a finger in his hot chocolate and absentmindedly sucks it. “Look, I’m a disabledhe says, his words racing. “I’m proud and I don’t want to have to mess with the language.”
The trio are members of the Geelong-based and internationally recognized Back to Back Theatre, a neurodiverse or intellectually disabled ensemble or both. Their last work conceived in group, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, takes a wry, sharp look at the slave labor imposed on the intellectually disabled – and asks what the rise of artificial intelligence will mean for the neurotypical. Will those who consider themselves “normal”, as the actors say, be patronized by genius machines?
Watching the actors block the stage is longtime Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin.
Gladwin is seated with his hands on his knees. Standing 196cm tall and with a straight back, he has the ability to stand completely still, watching the performers with uncanny concentration.
As a youngster, the now 55-year-old director had “constant mission drift,” but he found his calling in 1989. Gladwin had just finished a teaching degree and was working in community theater when he was told by a mentor that Australia’s most interesting game was set in a place considered a cultural backwater, the industrial city of Geelong.
As he bought a ticket to see the new Back to Back, his mother’s voice was in his ear. He had been brought up not to look at people with disabilities, and he had just paid to do so.
This show was based on a true story about a man and a woman who met at a nightclub in Caloola, a large asylum outside the Victorian town of Sunbury. The couple, who became instant best friends, discovered during the process of deinstitutionalization of the state that they were also brother and sister.
“There was a time on this show where they were representing disco in the institution,” Gladwin recalled. “And one of the characters who plays a worker says, ‘Okay, everybody on the dance floor! And virtually everyone in the audience also got up on the dance floor. And it took about 15 minutes to kind of master the whole performance.
Right there, Gladwin had an aesthetic epiphany. Anarchy, collectivism, the tumultuous anti-hierarchical spirit seduced him. He felt present at the start of an artistic movement, and whenever Gladwin could he worked on projects with the company until in 1999 he became artistic director of Back to Back.
“When I started,” Gladwin recalls, “I said to actors, ‘What do you want to do?’ and they basically said, ‘We want to go around the world.’ And we did. So it’s kind of like a big tick,” he notes euphemistically.
Over the past two decades, Back to Back Theater has performed on the main stages of the world’s major cultural institutions, leaving rhapsodic reviews in their wake. Alison Croggon described Food Court (2008) as the rare show that “reminds you that theater is burning glass, art [that] burns through the intellect into the fabric of deep feeling. Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011), about the elephant-headed god embodying the ancient Hindu swastika symbol, has been described by The New York Times as “a vital tonic for theatergoers”. Time Out called Lady Eats Apple (2016) a creation that takes us to “a place of pure love”.
By filming up to 24 weeks a year, Back to Back could guarantee a salary for its artists. “And for some of our actors, when they first started working with the company, a lot of them just didn’t have their own money. We would go on tour and give them $50 a day, and that It was the first time in their lives that they had this level of autonomy.
Then came the Covid plan burial force, removing The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes from the international circuit. The company scrapped its touring schedule and instead filmed the play, with a technical crew consisting of nine members with disabilities who were mentored by industry stalwarts.
Unlike the Back to Back performances made for the “big stages in Europe”, the ensemble worked without “smoke and mirrors”. Everything was stripped down, a throwback to the punk aesthetic that Gladwin had fallen in love with all those years ago.
An unusual request
The director was adjusting to the complexity of all that had been lost and found, when in late 2021 he responded to an unusual request.
The organizers of the Norwegian government’s biennial International Ibsen Prize have asked the whole company to come together for a meeting. The purpose of the gathering was not disclosed, yet it was to take place in a studio with multiple cameras.
Gladwin knew that the company had been nominated for the Ibsen Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for theatre, and that “the stakes were rising”. Nevertheless, when, with “typically Norwegian restraint”, it was announced that Back to Back were the 2022 winners and recipients of the NOK 2.5 million prize, the ensemble was genuinely amazed. At the call, the members of the jury – theater personalities from all over the world – read a collective testimony acknowledging the astonishing ability of Back to Back to “dissect the unspoken words of society” to “reveal the public to it -same “.
“After the last years of Covid, feeling that you are part of an international community had a strong impact,” admits Gladwin. “It was nice to hear people talk about not just one work, but several works over the years, from different festivals and venues.”
In the wave of publicity that followed, however, Gladwin noticed an emerging narrative, along the lines of “’Aren’t you shocked? You’re just a small theater group that no one knows about, and you’ve won this huge prize! And yes, we were shocked.
“And yes, we feel privileged, but at the same time, the actors have been shooting at major festivals for two decades and working very hard. And they’re really well known and respected for what they do… they deserve it.
In the rehearsal room, Laherty, Mainwaring and Price, who have been playing together for 15 years, help each other through failed cues and perfect deliveries. They each bring a different intensity and charisma to the scene..
Mainwaring, who has an acquired brain injury from a childhood car accident, is fascinating to watch the ocean emotion underlying her lines. Laherty, with his expressive face and straightforward delivery, anchors the piece. Price, who is autistic, has a restless, unpredictable, Brando-like energy.
In the middle of rehearsal, he suddenly leaves the room, returning with a letter which he shoves in Gladwin’s face. “What’s wrong with that?” he asks.
Gladwin wonders if the punctuation is incorrect.
“Nope!” Turns out the letter, congratulating Price on the Ibsen award, comes from the school where the actor was constantly bullied.
Price goes back on his lines: “For thousands of years, he announces, disabled people have been abandoned in the woods, kept in cellars, tied to beds, experimented on, isolated, gassed, drugged, devalued, victimized, dehumanized, sterilized. and euthanized.
“Given that,” Simon deadpan, as if addressing the audience, “I’m amazed anyone showed up tonight, at all.”
And that audience, when it arrives, may well be watching Australia’s most acclaimed theater company in flight.